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5 Best Closers in MLB History
5 Best Closers in MLB History
Baseball today features record-breaking fast pitch speeds — but also tosses in the other direction, the ultra-slow. Some hurlers have had considerable success being among the slowest MLB pitchers in history, applying a variety of pitches and styles to slow the ball down to confound hitters over the years.
In an age when numerous Major League Baseball pitchers top 100 mph — with relief pitcher Aroldis Chapman setting the record with a 105.1-mph heater in 2010 — those who toss balls at less than 80 mph can be easily overlooked.
Yet, extreme slow-ballers have succeeded, and continue to show their slow stuff in MLB games. Some of their pitches might equal half the speed of the fireballers, but a strike is a strike, and an out is an out, right? Here’s a look at the best of the slo-mo pitches and those who hurled them.
Slowest MLB Pitchers by Type of Pitch
Most slow MLB pitches are not the result of a player losing oomph on the fastball. Many are purposely thrown way off speed, in pitchers’ never-ending quest to disrupt the timing of batters who must make split-second decisions on whether to swing or not. Plus, there’s the matter of hitting a ball looping downward, which hitters are not accustomed with.
Following are our top 17 slowest MLB pitchers in history, broken down by their soft specialty — plus a few honorable mentions.
Probably the most-famous slowball in MLB history is the “eephus” pitch by Rip Sewell — a high, lobbing toss resembling today’s slowpitch softball pitches, only he threw it overhand. A challenge to throwing a high-arching ball in a baseball game is having it still cross the plate through a hitter’s strike zone. Yet Sewell figured it out.
Losing steam on his fastball mid-career, he tacked on several more years of pitching with his lob ball, including famously in the 1946 All-Star Game when Ted Williams finally figured it out and slugged it far out of the park.
Sewell had been a relatively effective pitcher before beginning to engage the eephus. He didn’t stick in the Majors until age 31 in 1938, then pitched well through consecutive 21-win seasons through 1944 before starting to fade. The slow pitch probably extended his career past a tired arm that tossed 551 innings his best 2 seasons.
The eephus did not disappear entirely with Sewell’s retirement, though seeing one is pretty rare, at least straight up and not in the form of a curveball. In modern times, among the most famous is the “blooper” Bill Lee threw for the Boston Red Sox in Game 7 of the 1975 World Series — which Tony Perez clobbered over the Green Monster at Fenway Park for a critical 2-run home run.
According to the 1987 book “The Pitcher,” by John Thorn and John Holway, the first pitcher to use an eephus-like pitch was Bill Phillips in the 1890s. As Phillips aged he understood the importance of keeping batters off balance, and he began to employ an assortment of off-speed pitches including a looper.
The knuckleball by design is not tossed with the hard-snap wrist action of other types of pitches. It actually could be called the fingernail ball, because that’s really how it’s gripped, with the fingernails digging into the ball’s seams or hide to be pushed forward with a stiff wrist, instead of snapped. The result is no spin during flight, which lets air grip the seams and cause an aerodynamic oddity making the ball float, bounce and flutter like a butterfly as it approaches home plate.
The most famous knuckleballers are probably Hoyt Wilhelm, Phil Niekro, and Tim Wakefield — though Niekro’s brother Joe Niekro, Wilbur Wood and Charlie Hough also come to mind. Wilhelm and Phil Niekro rode the knuckler to the Hall of Fame, while Wakefield revived his career in Boston and claimed 2 World Series rings with it.
Some knuckles adjust the speeds of their tosses, while others just stick with letting them go as slowly as possible, to kind of tantalize waiting batters.
Ever see old video clips of Fernando Valenzuela confounding 1980s hitters? His screwball was something that hitters of the era, ever wary of hard-thrown sliders and the new split-fingered fastball, had trouble dealing with for years. Valenzuela even tossed a no-hitter late in his career with his slowball a main part of his pitch arsenal.
Valenzuela followed in the footsteps of Hall of Famer Carl Hubbell, another left-hander who won 2 MVP awards in the National League and who famously struck out 5 future Hall of Famers to start the 1934 All-Star Game, mostly with the scroogie. He once won 24 games in a row, and eventually 253 in his career.
Unsure if his pitch could be classified as a screwball, or just a curveball that breaks backward, but Hall of Famer Christy Mathewson utilized a well-known “fadeaway” pitch on this way to stardom with the New York Giants. Instead of making it a publicity-stunt toss, Mathewson often saved the pitch for high-stakes situations at the end of games — often with killer results.
Big-hooking, very slow curveballs remain in the arsenal of many pitchers, among them Clayton Kershaw, who has a dandy that can get below 50 mph. Barry Zito also was known to throw a nasty “12 to 6,” a curve that started high and broke straight down, as in from the 12 to the 6 on a clock face.
Ditto for former Cy Young winner Zack Greinke, who when not trying to win dugout bets with the slowest possible pitch might just use his 70 mph-or-less curve with two strikes. And, at times, the result is a strikeout.
Former pitcher Vicente Padilla once had his late-career curve, which hit the mid-50s on the speed gun, called the “soap bubble” because it appeared to float to the plate at the same speed as, well, soap bubbles in the wind.
True changeups only have to be slightly slower than fastballs, say by 5 or 7 mph. However, some pitchers go to the extreme, like Anibal Sanchez, whose change floats as slowly as 60 mph. That’s way off the low-90s of his fastball.
Some pitches don’t have a name to call them, so lob ball seems appropriate. Dave LaRoche was notorious for his slowballs in the 1980s, and had some success with it. Jamie Moyer also comes to mind, milking slow bending pitches to a career that had him on MLB mounds to age 49.
“LaLob” by LaRoche, and the “Folly Floater” by tall pitcher (and former NBA player) Steve Hamilton in 1970 are among the most memorable soft tosses — especially when old video clips show famed sluggers taking mighty swings and missing. It’s worth noting that when Hamilton was traded to the San Francisco Giants, a National League umpire ruled the slow pitch illegal because he deemed it below the MLB’s standards.
Moyer was unique at the end of his career because his fastball would barely crack 80 mph. He began relying on sinking or cutting fastballs along with off-speed offerings, plus pinpoint accuracy that kept his career going much longer than most thought possible.
The Slowest Pitch in MLB History?
Knowing the slowest pitch ever since the Major Leagues began in 1876 is impossible, because ball speeds were not technically measured until the introduction of the radar gun in the 1970s. Even since then, advanced speed gun technology has made some say that Nolan Ryan’s 101 mph fastball back in the ‘70s would be 108 mph now.
For those before 1970, we just have to take the word of historians that Sewell, Hubbell and others threw soft dandies. That said, there are other ways now to judge how fast a ball traveled from the pitcher’s hand to the catcher.
Video, for example, can be judged by frames per second. So if an expert editor slowly tracks the ball, a speed estimate can be made by math, taking the distance into consideration. In general, the softest tosses that can be found are in the 40 to 50 mph range:
- Dennis Springer, 43 mph (on a pitch, incidentally, that Barry Bonds hit for his record 73rd home run of the 2001 season)
- Orlando Hernandez, 45 mph
- Clayton Kershaw, 45 mph
- Yu Darvish, 48 mph
- Bill Lee, 49 mph
The winner is a pitcher who, by the video estimates, cracked less than 40 mph. Dave LaRoche once threw a pitch an estimated 31 mph. For comparison, a 13-year-old once threw a 71 mph fastball in the Little League World Series.
Final Words on MLB’s Slowest Pitchers
Just because a pitcher made the list above does not necessarily mean he is, overall, a “slow” pitcher. Often the slowest pitches are among a list of styles and speeds good pitchers will try to keep batters guessing and off-balance. Few pitchers throw every pitch below 70 mph; almost all MLB pitchers must mix up speeds.
Others might have purposely slowed their velocity down to become fan favorites, however temporary, or extend their careers a la Jamie Moyer. Knuckleball pitchers in particular seem to have long careers since the pitch causes less strain on the shoulder and elbow than slinging balls for maximum speed.
Slow pitches probably have been around since the beginning of the MLB, but without them being mentioned in news recaps of games, we really did not know the true slow speeds of pitches until the radar gun came around in the 1970s. Will someone toss a ball even slower than Dave LaRoche’s 31 mph? Only time will tell …
Question: What does “eephus” mean?
Answer: A teammate of Sewell’s said it means “a nothing pitch.” Some say the word possibly came from the Hebrew word “efes,” which means zero.
Q.: Can’t MLB pitchers just throw underhand for slow balls?
A.: Nothing in the rules prevents it, though as stated above, it’s hard for umpires to discern when lobbed balls cross the strike zone. It isn’t like slow-pitch softball where pitches are strikes if they land on the plate or shortly behind it. There are many baseball pitchers who are considered “underhand” pitchers, but in that sense they are considered “submariners,” or extreme side-arm pitchers. It’s not the same delivery used by fastpitch softball hurlers.
Q.: Can an eephus or bloop pitch bounce on the ground but still be called a strike?
A.: It’s possible, especially if a batter stands far up front in the batter’s box, closest to the pitcher. A ball theoretically could pass between the batter’s mid-section and knees while crossing the plate, for a strike regardless whether it bounces afterward. However, an umpire could be hard-pressed to make such a call, just by how the pitch appears.
Q.: Do hitters really strike out on slow pitches?
A.: All the time. In 2020, the slowest pitch that resulted in a strikeout actually was thrown by a position player sent to the mound to mop up in a blowout: infielder Todd Frazier, who threw a 55.3 mph knuckleball. Who was second? Zack Greinke, with a 61.9 mph “eephus curve.”
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